NATO foreign ministers agreed Monday to give European nations greater independence in launching military operations without U.S. leadership as part of a broad restructuring plan intended to make the Atlantic alliance more flexible and less focused on East-West confrontations.
Approval of the plan followed several days of back-room wrangling as the United States sought an agreement that allowed its European allies more responsibility for security missions without diminishing Washington’s traditional role as overall leader of the 47-year-old alliance.
The restructuring seeks to provide a framework in which European members - who for several years failed to respond adequately to the carnage in Bosnia - could move more quickly, with less U.S. involvement, to cope with unspecified future conflicts.
U.S. and European officials alike pronounced themselves satisfied with the compromise adopted by the 16 member states, who met in Berlin for the first time.
“There is real substance in today’s decision,” Secretary of State Warren Christopher told reporters. “This provides for a stronger NATO, a more flexible NATO, and allows our European allies to take more responsibility.”
Alliance Secretary General Javier Solana concurred that the meeting produced “a new NATO.”
French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette said Paris will rejoin NATO’s military structure - which then-President Charles de Gaulle pulled out of 30 years ago - if the new plan meets France’s expectations.
“France is ready, at the proper time - not today - to take its full place in this new alliance,” De Charette said.
A senior French official said the plan adopted Monday is acceptable, but “France wants to see within six months whether it is mere words or reality.”
Under a new concept called “combined joint task forces,” two or more NATO forces will be able to launch a military operation with their own troops while borrowing such elements as transport aircraft, communications equipment and satellite intelligence, which are largely American-owned.
“In the long run, it is neither in the American nor the European interest that we have to call our American friends each time something flares up somewhere,” German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said.
Although the plan is designed to keep U.S. ground troops from harm’s way in certain parochial conflicts, the operation of aircraft, intelligence systems and communications equipment would still require U.S. personnel.
Hundreds of U.S. troops, for example, currently perform those tasks in Bosnia.
Such “task force” missions, which would require unanimous approval from NATO’s 16-member North Atlantic Council, would fall under the military command of the Western European Union, a 10-nation European organization that has been largely impotent since its formation in 1954.
NATO troops could be used, for instance, to keep the peace on Cyprus in the event there is a settlement on the island, which was divided by a Turkish invasion in 1974, said a U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“NATO has met the challenges until now,” Solana said. “Now NATO has to meet the challenges of the future.”
The former Spanish foreign minister said Russian troops could participate in NATO operations, as they already do in Bosnia, and Christopher said NATO could extend its operations beyond Europe, although he suggested the possibility was remote.
Many details remain to be hammered out, according to sources, including whether there will be a deputy to NATO’s supreme commander - a job traditionally filled by an American four-star general - with specific command responsibilities for any task force.
Moreover, the “lending” of U.S. strategic assets remains a murky concept, with unanswered questions about cost and the liability for any equipment lost in action.
Clearly worried that Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole might charge that the Clinton administration is potentially placing U.S. forces under European command, U.S. officials stressed that no American units will participate in European-centered operations without full U.S. control.
Moreover, one senior administration official said it is unlikely that the Europeans will ever go it alone on anything more significant than limited search-and-rescue operations or low-risk crisis management.
“It’s very difficult for us to look around the landscape and see any situations where the United States would not want to be involved,” the official said.
“In the real world, when real threats develop, the United States will be there.”